ST. BENEDICT — On the first day of fall term at Mount Angel Seminary, “Early Christian Classics” was moved across the hallway to a large, tiered classroom in Annunciation Hall. Enrollments had exceeded expectations, and more than 30 seminarians settled into seats beneath the room’s sculptural light fixtures. Most of the students wore black. And all of them were men except for me, Mount Angel’s new director of development.
I had enrolled in the course, taught by Shawn Keough, hoping to gain greater familiarity with the seminarians and their educational pursuits. For the past several weeks, Keough has guided us through a searching exploration of Augustine’s Confessions, before moving on to works authored by Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, and John Cassian. Along the way, I’ve learned much about the classics of our spiritual tradition – and also about our seminary and future leaders of the Church.
Keough joined the seminary faculty this year, along with his wife Myrna Keough, who serves as the seminary’s coordinator of music and liturgy. In July, the couple moved their family to Oregon from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. His teaching style is marked by scholarly rigor, high expectations, Canadian civility (he never fails to thank a seminarian for offering a comment or question), and disarming accounts of life with three young boys, including renditions of favorite bath-time songs and accounts of dismaying diapers. Recently, he humorously invited any seminarian having second thoughts about the priestly vocation to talk with him about the tumult of family life.
Having recently worked and taught at a private liberal arts college, I am struck by a contrasting atmosphere in Keough’s classroom. The seminarians are unfailingly polite. They show up for class and appear to be prepared. Unlike students in some college courses, they clearly value the subject matter– they really need and want to learn it, both for their own intellectual and spiritual formation and for the guidance they can offer to others in the future. They seem already to have absorbed the lesson taught by Gregory of Nyssa, that human perfection is not something we attain once and for all, but is defined by our efforts to grow toward the goodness of God.
On the first day of class, Keough opened the session with a prayer penned by St. Aquinas, which asks God to help us express ourselves with clarity, accuracy and charm. Truly, on that day, I did not expect to be charmed by the seminarians and their professor, by their courtesy, humor, searching intellects and steady faith. They have reminded me that “charm” is closely linked to the word “charism,” and in this classroom I see daily evidence that divine power and grace are at work at Mount Angel Seminary and in the Church.